We all know that both mentors and sponsors can be extraordinarily important to a young lawyer’s success, whether it be in a law firm, a corporate legal department, a government agency, or other contexts.
Mentors take you under their wing by offering advice and support. They help you build, refine, and expand skills as well as formulate your vision for your career. They make suggestions about how to expand your network and they share the “unwritten” rules of how your organization works. A sponsor, on the other hand, is someone with an influential voice at the table, who is convinced of your potential, and who is willing to put some (or a lot) of her or his political capital on the line for you.
It has been reported that 43 percent of all licensed lawyers are millennials. A lot has been written for and about this generation, including how we can or should go about finding a mentor or sponsor.
Did you catch that “we”? As two senior members of the millennial generation, we have grown and evolved in our careers, but are not far removed from our early days as attorneys. We’ve been there. We’ve learned the importance of mentors and what it takes to earn sponsorship—and have been fortunate to experience the benefits of both.
Women and people of color report a variety of challenges in their access to mentoring opportunities. While progressive workplace policies and cultures can be beneficial, they do not guarantee effective mentorship or sponsorship for all.
According to a recent report by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, women of color had the lowest level of agreement when asked whether they have access to quality mentorship. According to the study cited in that report, only 57 percent of women of color indicated that they had access to good mentors, compared with over 68 percent of white men.
In fact, a widely cited study by the Harvard Business Review entitled, “The Sponsor Effect,” found that many talented women experience impediments to career success due to a failure to recognize the key role that sponsorship plays in advancing within the organization. A lack of mentorship and/or sponsorship can—and does—impact a junior lawyer’s ability to advance professionally.
So, how do you find a mentor? Fellow millennials, you’re not going to like this answer. It’s on you. Ask for what you need, want, and deserve. Speak up! Preferably in person. And if you’re overly reliant on formalized mentoring/sponsorship programming, you are going to lose out.
Our conversation below takes a look at our experiences and aims to shed light on what we learned from our career steps.
Jennifer: “Early in my career, I was more soft-spoken and less direct about my desire to be mentored (and then as I became more senior, sponsored). I realized after a few years that there were willing mentors around me—I just had to raise my hand.”
Jewel: “I agree. I learned early on in my career that I am responsible for my own development. It was incumbent on me to build my network and to ask for help when I needed it. I also learned that I shouldn’t limit the audience that I was speaking to. I had to expand my audience of prospective mentors inside, outside, and adjacent to organizations that I was affiliated with. Once I expanded my audience, I was fortunate to develop relationships with many leaders who were willing to contribute to my development, including the head of a practice group at my former firm. And one mentor oftentimes begets another.”
But what if you're being direct, and it's not working?
Jewel: “I know how that can feel. However, all is not lost. Consider whether or not you are showing the value you bring to a prospective mentoring relationship. People want to invest in those who are committed to their own development. Do not shy away from your accomplishments, but ensure that you embrace feedback and follow through on the advice you receive from others.”
“I have also learned that, just as potential mentees can be overlooked, so can potential mentors. Step outside of your comfort zone. Some of your best mentors will be those who view the world through a different lens, and who will challenge you to do the same. Focus on what you want to learn rather than the package the learning comes in. And don’t overlook your peers. Peers can also be excellent mentors from whom you can seek guidance. Effective mentorship is about developing authentic relationships. They come in all shapes and sizes.”
Jennifer: “I’m also reminded of advice I received early on in my career from my baby boomer father. He told me that I should make sure to get to the office before my boss arrived, and wait to leave until he or she left for the day. Fast-forward a few years later, I learned that I was likely to get long periods of uninterrupted time with a specific partner I was working with in the early evenings and on Fridays, when his schedule tended to be less packed with meetings and court appearances. As a result of these opportunities I quietly carved out for myself, he became an invaluable mentor and sponsor, and now he is my partner.”
“Bottom line, genuine relationships do not develop and grow over an exchange of emails; therefore, even in an office environment with flexible work arrangements, don’t underestimate the importance of face-to-face meetings. And it is critical that you understand the work habits of the individuals you are seeking out as mentors and sponsors.”
How does mentorship and sponsorship differ outside of the law firm setting?
Jewel: “I’ll take this one. I left law firm life two years ago and moved to an in-house position. It is different, but the basics still apply. What I want to stress in response to this question, though, is that it is critical when interviewing for a new opportunity to use the interview process to ensure that you are joining an organization with a strong and inclusive culture that values diversity and inclusion and is committed to talent development.”
“One of my mentors, a seasoned black partner, once told me that corporate culture tends to measure success by a manager’s ability to develop talent and, therefore, managers are encouraged to actively provide mentorship and development opportunities for all of their attorneys. His comments helped me to streamline my focus during the interview process when deciding between two Fortune 100 in-house offers. I accepted the offer with the company I believed had more of a talent-development mindset, so that finding mentors to aid in my development would not be as difficult a task. And two years in, I have not been disappointed. I remember going through the interview process and being intentional about interviewing the companies as much as they were interviewing me.”
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.